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World Politics

After the YouTube execution, what now for death penalty?

It was never meant to be a public execution. But two and a half minutes of jerky footage, shot with a mobile phone, brought the hanging of Saddam Hussein into living rooms across the world. By yesterday, it had provoked a wave of international condemnation, and put the question of capital punishment under renewed scrutiny.

"Welcome to the sordid world of the execution chamber, brought to you by the YouTube generation," Amnesty International said. More than half of all countries have abolished the death penalty in law or practice; Iraq has now rejoined the small number of countries where executions are routine and justice uncertain. That roll call includes China, Saudi Arabia, the US and Iran, where more than 90 per cent of executions are committed.

A total of 128 countries have abolished the death penalty in law or practice. Although 69 other countries retain the death penalty, the number of countries that actually execute prisoners in any year is much smaller.

Saddam's Iraq was notorious for arbitrary killings. He used torture, murders, targeted assassinations, and court-ordered executions to maintain an iron grip. One respected human rights organisation reported how he ordered public beheadings of women accused of being prostitutes. Their heads were publicly displayed near signs reading, "For the honour of Iraq".

His execution has come at a time when the death penalty is under more pressure than it has been for years. No less a figure than Governor Jeb Bush of Florida - whose brother, President George Bush, is a noted supporter of capital punishment - has just ordered a moratorium on executions in the state after a botched lethal injection in which the prisoner took twice as long as usual to die and is believed to have been in agony.

Executions have been suspended in California and Missouri after judges ruled lethal injection unconstitutional because the pain it causes amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.

And a special commission in New Jersey yesterday recommended that the state become the first to abolish the death penalty since the US Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976.

In the United States, new medical research that suggests lethal injection, the execution method in all but one state, is an extremely painful way to die, has reopened the debate.

Around the world, capital punishment is losing ground. In 2005, Mexico and Liberia became the latest countries to abolish the death penalty, bringing the number of countries that have no death penalty to 86; in 1977 there were 16.

Although thousands are still executed every year, just four countries account for 94 per cent of all executions: China, the US, Iran and Saudi Arabia. China accounts for most executions, sentencing people to death not only for murder, but for crimes including tax fraud, minor drug offences and non-violent theft. It has dropped its practice of forcing the relatives of the executed to pay for the bullet with which they are killed.

In Iran and Saudi Arabia, executions are still public. Criminals are beheaded with the sword in Saudi Arabia, and hanged from cranes in Iran, where children under the age of 18 are still executed.

Other countries that still commit significant numbers of executions include Vietnam, where information on how many death sentences have been carried out is classified as a state secret, and Pakistan. Now Amnesty International is warning of growing concern over the number of people being executed in Iraq.

Saddam executed thousands of Iraqis during his time in power. But in the end, the video of his own brutal execution may be two and a half minutes that reopened the debate on capital punishment.

Capital punishment across the world

53 The number of executions in the United States in 2006

10 The number of states which have put executions on hold after the botched execution of Angel Nieves Diaz in Florida last month. He took 34 minutes to die from a lethal injection

31 The number of years that one US citizen has been on death row. The Texan prisoner is scheduled to be executed this year for murder

68 The number of crimes carrying the death penalty in China. They include non-violent crimes such as tax fraud, embezzlement and drugs offences

86 The number of prisoners executed in Saudi Arabia last year - almost half of whom were foreign nationals

4 The number of people executed in Japan on Christmas Day

94 The percentage of all known executions which took place in China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the US

6 The number of methods of execution: beheading (in Saudi Arabia, Iraq); electrocution (US); hanging (Egypt, Iran, Japan, Jordan, Pakistan, Singapore and others); lethal injection (China, Guatemala, Philippines, Thailand, US); shooting (Belarus, China, Somalia, Taiwan, Uzbekistan, Vietnam and others) and stoning (Iran and Afghanistan)

18 The minimum age for the application of the death penalty according to international treaty

8 The number of child offenders executed in Iran in 2005

2,148 The total number of people executed in 2005, in 22 countries